AUSTIN — A close friend of Gov. Rick Perry’s who was fired as a Texas A&M University System executive after brandishing a pocket knife has a new job — assistant director of the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Jay Kimbrough, 64, is the new second-in-command at the DPS, the Austin American-Statesman reported. Director Steve McCraw said Kimbrough will oversee homeland security at the state’s police agency.
Read a profile of Kimbrough from 2007 after the break:
Rough edges, but no apologies
Scarred and motivated by past, Perry’s go-to man gets the job done
COLLEGE STATION, Texas – With Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” howling from the speakers and all 800 pounds of his Harley-Davidson thundering across a twisting Hill Country road, Jay Kimbrough lifts one leather-gloved hand to the sky.
“See those?” he shouts over the engine’s steely growl, pointing to a pair of buzzards circling above him. “They’re after me.”
It’s less a joke than an observation for Mr. Kimbrough, a self-proclaimed “dead man walking” who survived near fatal injuries in the jungles of Vietnam and now charges into high-profile jobs – adviser to Gov. Rick Perry, reformer of the embattled Texas Youth Commission, and his most recent, fixer of biodefense breaches at Texas A&M University.
The battle wounds have left him without fear or sense, depending on who’s talking. He’s a duty-driven, freedom-fighting Mr. Fix-It who lives one BlackBerry message away from entering another burning building.
Over the past decade, Mr. Kimbrough has been the point-man for almost every crisis through two Republican administrations – from drug programs to homeland security. His take-no-prisoners attitude has alienated some, particularly those who find themselves suddenly answering to him. But state leaders have recruited him time and again to right listing ships.
It’s a natural progression for a man who still marvels that he survived being pumped with bullets in a North Vietnamese rice paddy in 1967.
“Every day is kind of a bonus for him,” says Gov. Rick Perry, who spent the 40th anniversary of Mr. Kimbrough’s near-death cruising with him on their motorcycles. “He could be a name on The Wall. Instead, he’s a happy warrior, a man who comes back time after time to serve.”
But the scars have also left Mr. Kimbrough, 60, with a complicated psyche – an emotionally fragile and sometimes obsessive man who critics say plays the hero to justify his survival and seeks out nonstop crisis to ward off his own demons.
Four decades after the helicopter he was riding in was shot down, Mr. Kimbrough’s lower lip still trembles when he speaks about Vietnam – his first and last trip outside the United States – and MASH is the only on-screen war he can stomach.
He hasn’t gone on vacation since 1979 or been in an airport since Sept. 11.
And he spends his weekends checking obituaries and driving to military funerals of soldiers he never met, often becoming so choked up he must turn and ride away.
Every conversation with him includes a military refrain: “No wonder we lost the war.” “Just another day in the bush.” Or “I’ll go – in a pine box.
“Do I have any burning desire to be out standing in front of every train running in Texas? No, ma’am, I don’t,” Mr. Kimbrough says, ambling through the Independence Harley-Davidson store he frequents most days for a hot dog lunch. “But I can’t imagine facing [fallen soldiers] some day and having them say, ‘I see you sat on your butt for the last 40 years.’”
Sit he hasn’t. Mr. Kimbrough has overhauled drug task forces, targeted sexual predators and fought corruption at the Texas Commission on Private Security and the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse. In his most recent roles, he oversaw the TYC as conservator after reports of widespread abuse in the agency, and he has taken charge of A&M’s biodefense crisis as deputy chancellor of the university system.
All the while, he’s been an active father and grandfather and a loyal husband to a wife he doted on long before the brain aneurysm she suffered as a young mother.
Jay Kimbrough, born in Dallas in 1947, was raised with a sense of duty. His father, a sporting goods salesman and golf pro, had been a radio operator on a World War II cargo aircraft. His mother worked in an airplane factory, and Mr. Kimbrough grew up in Oak Cliff.
Despite meager means, young “Smokey” climbed the social ladder as student council president and an athletic standout.
Mr. Kimbrough says his life changed on Nov. 22, 1963, as he sat in study hall at South Oak Cliff High School, dreaming of the night’s city championship football game against Woodrow Wilson and listening to radio coverage of John F. Kennedy’s motorcade.
Almost as soon as the shots were fired, said Mr. Kimbrough, who idolized the president, “I knew everything was going to be different.” He was determined to serve in Kennedy’s honor.
He graduated early, then headed down to the military recruiting office on Commerce Street, demanding to know which branch could get him to Vietnam first.
As an 18-year-old Marine, he shipped out in the summer of 1966, thinking the war would be over by Christmas. Within days he was deep in the gnarled and jungle-hot bush, a machine gunner trained to search and destroy.
“We were literally just hunting people, setting up ambushes and waiting for them to walk in it,” Mr. Kimbrough says without emotion, leafing through photos of North Vietnamese corpses stacked in village streets. Even today, he says, he can recognize the smell of blood anywhere.
“This was our job, what we were trained to do,” says Mr. Kimbrough, who never kept his own death count. “We had to kill them before they killed us.”
On May 10, 1967, as Mr. Kimbrough and others scrambled to relieve another unit hit hard by fighting, their helicopter was taken down by enemy fire.
He and a Navy medic jumped before the helicopter crashed. Lying in a rice paddy in enemy territory, Mr. Kimbrough felt bullets pierce his gut. For the next four hours, he waited – bleeding, unable to feel his legs, with the medic lying on him for cover – for the North Vietnamese soldiers to close in and execute them.
“I wasn’t about to die,” Mr. Kimbrough says, his throat tightening. “I was already dead.”
His platoon sergeant and four others rushed Mr. Kimbrough back to the landing zone, dropping him every time they dodged bullets and returned fire.
“The only thing I remember thinking,” Mr. Kimbrough says, “is how much it was like a football game.”
He ended up with a Purple Heart and a bed in a Corpus Christi military hospital; and it took nine months of rehabilitation to overcome spinal cord damage and regain the strength to walk. Grainy photos from July 4 of that year show a bony 19-year-old in pale blue hospital scrubs, his plastic fork stabbing a half watermelon.
“We went to see him in that hospital – he was very, very injured, and in a tremendous amount of pain,” said Diane Brown Wallace, whose brother, a high school friend of Mr. Kimbrough’s, was killed in Vietnam around the same time Mr. Kimbrough was injured. “I remember that, despite his pain, his great concern was for my dad, for us, knowing that my brother was gone.”
Nearly 40 years later, Mr. Kimbrough attended his comrade’s re-burial in a military cemetery.
‘I knew what I had’
All Mr. Kimbrough wanted was to get healthy and go back, as he says, “to kill more North Vietnamese.” His injuries wouldn’t allow it.
“When I was with the TYC, people told me there were kids they met in there who did not want to leave, and they were stunned by that,” Mr. Kimbrough said. “I understood completely. When I was in the jungle, when I was in Vietnam, I knew what I had. Coming back home, I didn’t.
It was a painful transition at the height of the anti-war movement.
Mr. Kimbrough enrolled in college night classes because daytime Vietnam war protests on campus “were just too damn much.
He left his first promising job, an entry-level post with the state attorney general’s office in Austin, after just two months, when University of Texas students ran down Congress Avenue waving North Vietnamese flags.
“It took my breath away,” Mr. Kimbrough says, disgusted even today. “We all got branded baby-killing, dope-smoking murderers.”
Mr. Kimbrough wouldn’t return to Austin for nearly three decades.
During the 1970s, he finished college at Southern Methodist University, earned a law degree from Houston’s South Texas College of Law and married his sweetheart, Ann
He later had a high-profile legal career in Bee County, working his way from the Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps to assistant county attorney, county attorney and county judge, and making an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1992.
He raised his son on tales of jungle adventures and consoled his daughter by pinning his Purple Heart on her pillow.
And despite his years as a Kennedy Democrat, he eventually switched political parties, organizing Texas events for the elder George Bush and earning an invitation to the White House. It was through his work with the Republican Party that he first met Mr. Perry. From the get-go, the future governor was impressed with Mr. Kimbrough’s hard-charging style.
When Mr. Kimbrough wasn’t working – which was hardly ever – he often placed himself in danger.
There was the off-road Jeep that overheated and caught fire, forcing Mr. Kimbrough to drive it into a pond. There was the prop plane he crash-landed in a pasture after a double engine failure. And there was his attempt to burn off a few acres of hay, which turned into a 50-acre blaze on his property.
The risk was surprising for a man whose idea of an exotic meal is a Wendy’s junior hamburger and a chocolate Frosty.
“Inevitably, we’d come home and there would be a DPS trooper, a fire engine, something in our driveway,” says his daughter Melissa Beardsley, who works at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “He needed it to direct some of that nervous energy.”
That energy came in handy when state leaders looked to him to clean up messes.
He earned a reputation for military efficiency: rolling heads and drawn swords. He favored “boots on the ground” over “policy wonks.” Establishment and bureaucracy were dirty words. By 2001, Mr. Perry had made Mr. Kimbrough his criminal justice adviser, and later, his deputy chief of staff. For five years after Sept. 11, Mr. Kimbrough jumped back and forth between top posts with Mr. Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott, as the state’s go-to man for every law enforcement and homeland security crisis.
He soon landed in his most significant political dust-up, one that follows him to this day.
In 2003, Mr. Kimbrough was repeatedly captured on video in a Capitol command center helping to track down House Democrats who fled the state to prevent a vote on a Republican plan to redraw the state’s congressional districts.
For Mr. Kimbrough, it was “absolutely not a partisan thing” – “a pretty dang simple request from the speaker’s office to see if there was a way to enforce the rules of the House.”
Democrats saw it as an abuse of power and an insult to elected officials. Many hold a grudge.
“It was very clear he was pretty much in charge of the operation,” said Rep. Kevin Bailey, D-Houston. “He was the one who contacted the FBI, who asked them to either apprehend us or get involved. … He went way too far. He never should’ve been involved.”
In March, when Mr. Perry called on Mr. Kimbrough to overhaul the abuse-ridden TYC, the appointee faced a tense line of questioning over his objectivity and intentions.
And his hard-swearing, authoritarian presence – Mr. Kimbrough wore leather biker boots and a Darth Vader tie to many early media appearances – didn’t help.
But his road was smoothed by key allies across the aisle, those who knew that political affiliation was about as important to Mr. Kimbrough as what he’d had for dinner.
“I guess Jay’s a Republican, but that never crosses my mind,” said Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who initially doubted Mr. Kimbrough but now calls him one of his closest advisers. “He just repeatedly tells people exactly what they need to hear.”
He was there for just a few months, but longtime TYC employees accused Mr. Kimbrough of sweeping through like a tornado without heart or expertise. He didn’t give second chances. He hated excuses. He made snap decisions without regard for procedure. And he had little use for people with institutional experience, who he generally believed were part of the agency’s “culture problem.”
His thirst for moving quickly sometimes caused controversy. This spring, after a lobbyist reached out to Mr. Kimbrough, TYC executives awarded a $275,000 no-bid contract to a former state official with a history of questionable business dealings. The contract bypassed routine procurement practices and raised concerns about why a struggling agency would do business with someone targeted in past ethics investigations.
From Mr. Kimbrough’s perspective, the young inmates – not the staff or procedural niceties – were his priority.
He would jump on his Harley in the middle of the night when an abuse call came across the hotline, insisting on checking prison conditions firsthand. He passed out his cellphone number to every frantic mother who asked for it
He gave his toughest critics a reason to take pause.
“I still think of him as a Republican operative,” said Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth. “But he certainly did a better job at the TYC than he did protecting my constituents’ right to fight redistricting.”
Soon after he returned to Texas A&M in June, it was revealed that university researchers had failed to report that a lab worker was infected with a dangerous agent. Mr. Kimbrough reacted much the same way as at TYC.
He aired the biodefense program’s dirty laundry with a focus on transparency, not on reputation. He advised the system chancellor to get out in front. And he vowed the people responsible wouldn’t stay in their jobs. They didn’t.
“There’s this Ronald Reagan quote: ‘Some people live an entire lifetime and wonder if they have made a difference in the world. Marines don’t have that problem,’” said Daniel Hodge, chief of staff in the attorney general’s office and one of Mr. Kimbrough’s protégés. “Jay will never have that problem either.”
PUTTING OUT FIRES
Much of Jay Kimbrough’s public career has been in crisis management at the service of Texas governors. He’s won praise as an effective reformer, though his style has rubbed plenty of officials the wrong way. A look at his jobs:
Texas Commission on Private Security, 1997-2000 As executive director, he solved major fiscal mismanagement and implemented criminal background checks for thousands of security guards.
Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, 2000-01 After he was appointed conservator by Gov. George W. Bush, Mr. Kimbrough resolved the agency’s $20 million debt.
Gov. Rick Perry’s office, 2001; 2003-05 He restructured the state’s mismanaged drug task forces and helped spearhead a homeland security task force following Sept. 11, 2001.
Attorney general’s office, 2002-03; 2005-06 As a deputy attorney general, he started programs to target online sex predators and dramatically expanded the Medicaid fraud unit.
Texas Youth Commission, 2007 After Mr. Perry appointed him conservator, Mr. Kimbrough rehabilitated an agency suffering widespread sexual and physical abuse in youth prisons.
Texas A&M University, 2006-present Shortly after becoming deputy chancellor in 2007, Mr. Kimbrough helped smooth over a biodefense safety scandal in which researchers failed to report lab accidents to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
Spend a little time with Jay Kimbrough and you’ll hear an earful. A sampling:
On the desegregation of his high school: “I went to segregated schools, but wasn’t conscious of it. I didn’t know no Yankees either. I didn’t hardly know no Catholics.”
On enlisting in the Marines: “There were bigger things than Friday night football.”
On nearly being killed in Vietnam: “I’m no hero, no nothing. I’m just a kid in the war who got shot.”
On switching from the Democratic to the Republican Party in the 1980s: “I was a Democrat because everyone else was. I really didn’t know one party from the other.”
On his theory of patriotism: “Honor the warrior, regardless of how you feel about the war.”
On why he doesn’t fly commercially: “Getting in a big old box with another 150 people, I’m not into that.”
What he asks his wife for every time she goes shopping: “Fruit and bullets.”
How he asked to be introduced at a White House state dinner: “I’m Jay, this is Ann, and we’re from Beeville.”